Thursday, April 18, 2013

Better Know a Philosopher | Descartes

René Descartes (1596–1650) was a creative mathematician of the first order, an important scientific thinker, and an original metaphysician. During the course of his life, he was a mathematician first, a natural scientist or “natural philosopher” second, and a metaphysician third... Descartes was known among the learned in his day as the best of the French mathematicians, as the developer of a new physics, and as the proposer of a new metaphysics. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Many of you have probably heard of him as the man who proposed, "I think, therefore I am." But, where exactly did he get his basis for trusting his own thought? He seems to prove that man in a thinking thing, self-aware, independent, different from the animals. But, what allows man to think in the first place?

To begin: "Like Bacon before him, Descartes began his philosophy by sweeping away all the 'errors of the past:'" (Baird, 10.)

"The proofs I employ here are in my view as certain and evident as the proofs of geometry, if not more so, it will, I fear, be impossible for many people to achieve an adequate perception of them, both because they are rather long and some depend on others, and also, above all, because they require a mind with is completely free from preconceived opinions and which can easily detach itself from involvement with the senses...

What is more, there is the difference that in geometry everyone has been taught to accept that as a rule no proposition is put forward in a book without there being a conclusive demonstration available; so inexperienced students make the mistake of accepting what is false, in their desire to appear to understand it, more often than they make the mistake of rejecting what is true. In philosophy, by contrast, the belief is that everything can be argued either way; so few people pursue the truth, while the great majority build up their reputation for ingenuity by boldly attacking whatever is most sound."

(Meditations, Letter to the Sorbonne paragraph 5)

What is Descartes trying to prove?

He writes in hopes of "Proving that God exists and that the mind is distinct from the body... to such a clarity that they are fit to be regarded as very exact demonstrations... there will be no one left in the world who will dare to call into doubt either the existence of God or the real distinction between the human soul and body."

(Meditations, Letter to the Sorbonne paragraph 6)

To Descartes, God is not only the basis for man's own thoughts, but also the proof that we are able to have a mind and think on our own.

"Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once..."

"When I turn my minds eye upon myself, I understand that I am a thing which is incomplete and dependent on another and which aspires without limit to ever greater and better things; but I also understand at the same time that he on whom I depend has within him all those greater things, not just indefinitely and potentially but actually and infinitely, and hence that he is God.

The whole force of the argument lies in this: I recognize that it would be impossible for me to exist with the kind of nature I have--that is, having within me the idea of God--were it not the case that God really existed. By 'God' I mean the very being the idea of whom is within me, that is, the possessor of all the perfections which I cannot grasp, but can somehow reach in my thought, who is subject to no defects whatsoever. It is clear enough from this that he cannot be a deceiver, since... all fraud and deception depend on some defect."

(Meditations paragraphs 18 and 52)

He also believed that we must know the infinite to understand anything as being finite. I hope to put more of his work up eventually. But, until then, here is:

More on Descartes concerning God's existence:

"For us who are believers, it is enough to accept on faith that the human soul does not die with the body, and that God exists; but in the case of unbelievers, it seems that there is no religion, and practically no moral virtue, that they can be persuaded to adopt until these two truths are proved to them by natural reason...

We seem to be told [in Proverbs 13 and Romans 1] that everything that may be known of God can be demonstrated by reasoning which has no other source but our own mind. Hence I thought it was quite proper for me to inquire how this may be, and how God may be more easily and more certainly known than the things of this world...

I know that the only reason why many irreligious people are unwilling to believe that God exists and that the human mind is distinct from the body is the alleged fact that no one has hitherto been able to demonstrate these points. Now I completely disagree with this: I think that when properly understood almost all the arguments that have been put forward on these issues by the great men have the force of demonstrations."

(Meditations, Letter to the Sorbonne)

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